AFTON, Va. — Paulie’s Pig-Out is a roadside barbecue hovel in Nelson County. It’s been open for a handful of years, sitting in the middle of roughly 947 wineries and at least one brewery. The sign is simple and white. It reads, “Paulie’s Pig-Out” in all-capped Helvetica letters and concisely explains that it serves, “pulled pork, BBQ and ribs.” There is an American flag sticking off one side, and at the base are two ever-kickin’ smokers that may or may not have been repurposed from Confederate artillery.
Paulie’s Pig-Out is the sort of place that people — probably the ones who are visiting those wineries, which are infested with college girls fantasizing about their weddings — skip because it doesn’t look pretty. But that’s unfair because Paulie’s Pig-Out is, while not destination ‘cue, very, very good. And it’s not uncommon that the best food comes from aesthetically modest restaurants. One of the best cheeseburgers I ever ate was cooked on an abused griddle by a big woman smoking a cigarette. She looked like Serena Williams, if Serena Williams was 53, overweight, and instead of winning 17 Grand Slams, she just had heart disease. In her non-cigarette hand, she wielded her spatula like a medieval instrument of war. I both feared and loved her.
The bad part about Paulie’s Pig-Out is getting there. It’s a fun drive, around bendy roads and down and over hills, but it’s out of the way. If you’re driving that way, you’re either going to a winery or you’re making a special trip to eat at Paulie’s
There’s also always someone in an old truck — it probably has a Gadsden-flag license plate (because the driver hates the government enough to pay an extra $10 to register their car with the government) — driving 10 miles below the speed limit. This person will be in front of you, and no, they will not turn at that stop sign. This is the worst because it’s absolutely possible to do 75 mph on some of the straightaways, especially when you’re in a Honda Civic with the windows down so everyone knows you’re listening to Hall and Oates.
Parking at Paulie’s Pig-Out when listening to Hall and Oates can be awkward. The dining room is, apparently, a tool shed to the left of the restaurant, which, I assume, has a devoted, local following. This is based on the two old guys in overalls who walked out of the dining shed into the parking lot, where they were confronted with Hall and Oates for the first time since their daughter had that “phase” in 1978. They looked like regulars. And like they once had to “hold a bridge in ‘Nam.” I both feared and loved them.
Also dining at Paulie’s Pig-Out on a Thursday afternoon: a truck driver, a giant man in a very small car, and a cop.
Typically, people who pre-sauce barbecue should be put in the branks and made think about what they’ve done. But Paulie’s pre-sauces, and it works. The sauce complements the smoke — it’s primarily hickory but with cherry-wood cameos — which survives its condiment dunking. The two collaborate and create a unique taste, and that is enough for me.
There was a pizzeria in Harrisonburg like that. The now-defunct Luigi’s didn’t make the best-tasting pizza, but it made pizza that tasted different, and I liked it because it was different. The barbecue at Paulie’s Pig-Out has its own flavor, and I appreciate it.
Paulie’s pork butts start in the oven, roasting for hours and hours, which the very nice woman behind the counter said allows the owners to spend a small part of their life not tending a smoker. The pork is later smoked for a few hours at the end. Some would consider this blasphemy and brank-worthy. Barbecue is equal parts science and art, with it probably leaning harder to art. It is about feel, and using technology in place of the ancient and loved wood-smoked method can seem cold — surgical. This doesn’t bother me. The barbecue is still good, and there is still ample smoke flavor. More bark is always a good thing, and even though the pre-saucing isn’t calamitous here, it still would be preferable to taste Paulie’s naked pork — but that doesn’t mean don’t stop. Go and go hard. It’s an experience and it’s different.